Organizing to Deal with Terrorism

David Tucker

May 1, 2001

Beginning May 8, one week before the execution of Timothy McVeigh for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the Senate will hold three days of hearings on terrorism. Also on May 8, Vice President Cheney announced that he was going to head a task force to assess how to prepare for terrorist attacks in the United States.

What accounts for this sudden concern? No doubt, McVeigh’s impending execution is part of the explanation. The simple truck bomb he built destroyed the federal building and killed 168 people. His execution will be the occasion for comment on the threat of terrorism and what we have done to cope with it. The Senate and the White House are anticipating this heightened concern.

But there is more involved than this. The damage done by McVeigh’s bomb is slight compared to what could happen if a terrorist used a mass casualty weapon, such as a poisonous chemical, or disease agent like anthrax or even some sort of nuclear device. This is what most concerns the Senate and the White House. The Senators want to know how well organized we are to deal with the consequences of such a dreadful attack. The Vice-President’s task force will be assisted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will try to devise the best ways to respond to what the Vice-President called a possible “disaster of major proportions.” According to press reports, both the Vice-President’s task force and FEMA will examine how the U.S. government is organized to respond to domestic terrorist attacks.

This concern with organization is not misplaced. More than forty federal government agencies and departments play some role in dealing with terrorism. In addition, the federal government must deal with a host of state and local officials. Organizing to deal with terrorism in the United States is a very complex problem.

As the Senate and White House officials ponder how to organize to deal with terrorism, they should remember that we have a lot of experience with this problem. The federal government began organizing to fight international terrorism almost 30 years ago, and efforts to improve our organization to deal with domestic terrorism have been going on for almost 10 years, ever since the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. A few important lessons have emerged from this experience.

Consider the federal government first. From the beginning, some contended that centralized control was necessary because without it agencies would follow their own interests and not work together. In the early years, this is what often happened. But instead of trying to fix the problem by creating a counterterrorism Czar, an individual with authority over all the counterterrorism programs of the government, the federal government ran its efforts against terrorism with a small committee made up of representatives from the most important agencies in the fight against terrorism.

The decentralized approach worked because it allowed each of the agencies to make its unique contribution to the counterterrorism effort. Agencies do fight to protect their turf and resources but this is not necessarily a bad thing. These turf fights allow the agencies to protect their ability to do what they do best and contribute it to the national effort. No one else, including some bureaucratic Czar, will do that for them. Experience shows, however, that this approach works only when combating terrorism is important to the President and his cabinet officers. Their leadership gives the agencies a powerful incentive to cooperate.

As for relations between the federal government and state and local authorities, experience suggests again that a decentralized approach is best. The federal government has resources vastly superior to any state or local government and some technical expertise that is unmatched in the world. But the state and local authorities know the local area and the people, invaluable knowledge when trying to cope with the consequences of a mass casualty attack. Even more important, they will be on the scene first, in the critical hours before any federal assistance can arrive. Too often in the past, from the perspective of the state and local authorities, the federal government has appeared to neglect their knowledge and responsibilities. In the long run, as the federal government no doubt realizes, it is more efficient and effective to bolster the authority of state and local governments.

More is at issue here, however, than efficiency and effectiveness. Our federal system of government, which leaves real authority in the hands of state and local governments, is part of the way we protect our liberties. However we organize to handle domestic terrorism, that organization should respect this fundamental principle of our constitutional life. If it does not, we will undermine our way of life and, ironically, do greater damage in responding to terrorist acts than the terrorists do in carrying them out.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism.